The Luddites strike back!

Both inworld and out there, I have been busy spreading Philip’s vision. The preliminary results are quite fascinating, and I do hope that Linden Lab?’s own marketing department has had much better experiences.

Since the “metaverse building” is something radical for the overall population – they will have to “grow into it” slowly – I tried to concentrate on the groups who I’d expect more willingness to adopt these views.

The first group would be the SL residents, of course. Here, unlike my expectations, I found out a very strong opposition. Basically, the more time people “play” the game, the less they “believe” in LL’s capacities to bring the platform beyond its current state. All seem unanimous to say that for a two-year development, the platform should be much more advanced. And all also think that we have too few residents. Even 4000-5000 new users per month is just a “small growth” compared to other “Internet killer applications”. They may be right, but there are limits to LL’s marketing department – they don’t weave miracles and conjure big campaigns world-wide from scratch.

Also, SL’s growth has “word of mouth” as its most successfull marketing tool. It is not enough, but at least it guarantees a steady supply of “satisfied” new residents. If you like something, you’ll naturally recommend it to 5 more. This is an “almost-universal” old marketing rule!

In this way, I was able to interest a few “real world” business ventures – mostly SME’s – to take a look at what SL could mean to them. Strangely enough, I had much more success with companies than with individuals. Here is a breakdown from the reactions from so-called “enlightened individuals” (people connected to the science fiction medium, or the computer industry):

It’s too expensive

Actually this is usually the first argument used ever. People just go to SL’s site, understand that they have to pay for the game, and they go away, complaining about the capitalistic view of LL which exploits us poor residents in order to make shareholders filthy rich.

Well, I usually have several counter-arguments for that. The first one, of course, is pointing out that you can try SL for free, and that you’ll get lifetime access for the price of two meals at MacDonalds’. This usually makes people reconsider their initial argument and they go back to the site and at least download the SL client.

Another argument is pointing out that, through GOM, Premium Accounts get a stipend which can be converted into more money than the monthly fee. LL gets happy due to increased income, and residents are able to make money from the game. They won’t be rich from living on stipends, but at the very least they will “feel” less “capitalistic oppression” by the nice guys at LL.

And finally, I usually point out that the problem with the 3 or 4 open source metaverse projects is the lack of enthusiasm on coders. Replicating SL, from a pure technological point of view, is not very hard. The real problem is managing schedules, antecipating user expectations, building a community, mantaining the servers, give excellent technical support both inworld and offworld. And, For that, you have to charge people some money. Again, no one in the western world, able to pay for a broadband connection, is going to be “exploited to the death” by contributing just 10 bucks for LL to give us all that 🙂

Second Life® only appeals to people with serious mental disorders, like schizofrenia and split personality

This is a very interesting phenomena, and apparently it has been well documented for other types of chat systems (I’m trying to get a good collection of pointers to them). It is a much stronger argument since it is hard to undervaluate the potential of SL’s appeal to those types of mental disorders.

Actually, SL is currently being used by some therapists to help people with social disabilities to function in a “normal way”. People recovering from crippling diseases also use SL to “have a normal life”, ie. interacting with other people and having fun. Since the old truism “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” certainly applies to SL, too, this means that people won’t have prejudices against you. You are defined by your actions and statements in SL, and not by your appearance in RL.

What this means is that both extreme cases do exist in SL – as they exist on chat systems. However, the argument is as flawed as the old question if “violent games” incite violence in youth. Several studies could only conclude that certain people – a tiny minority – have a “predisposal” towards violence which could be triggered by watching violent games or movies. Still, the majority of us is unaffected, and for several of us, it’s even an escape for our eventual violent behaviour (in those cases, violent games are “therapy”).

Certainly the vastest majority of SL residents don’t have “split personalities”. Picking on a selected few who may (or not) have mental disorders, and extrapolating for the whole group, is actually far-fetching.

This will never be an alternative to WWW/chat systems

This is a typical Luddite argument: current technology works, so why replace it for something as yet unproven?

I almost always counter-argue telling people how the WWW began it’s history. The arguments are spread over other articles in this blog, so I won’t repeat them. Human beings have short memories. The vast majority (90%) of Internet users nowadays joined after 1999 – meaning we had already established the WWW as “the” medium for communication at the century’s end. Oldtimers remember the Internet without WWW. It was just 10 years ago, and those types of arguments still can see on historical forums like “Déjà News”: I have been reading my own posts from 1994 and they are hilarious! Paragraphs usually start like this: “if you haven’t installed Mosaic, please try it out, the WWW is the next big thing on the Internet”. Replies are almost verbatim on what people tell nowadays about Second Life!

So the best argument for that type of opinion is simple: go to Google. Read the very old posts about WWW in 1994. See the kind of “flame wars” that “radical new technology” aroused on everybody. Lookup the posts for Tim Berners-Lee or Marc Andreesen, and see how the Luddites where all over those guys. See the first post of Linus Torvalds telling about what would become Linux, and cry with laughter at the replies like “that will never work”.

Aah, it’s so easy to be a visionary when you know the future! But poor contemporary visionaries. Quoting someone from SL, “I don’t have sufficient data to tell me if SL will be the metaverse of the future, but my guess is, it won’t be”.

The technology is too primitive for this to become a serious platform for the metaverse

This is another truism. Sure, SL has bugs and lots of limitations. At an age where even mediocre 3D games sport 30 fps and photo-realistic rendering, SL shows cartoons with stuttering framerates, lots of lag, and a broken interface. And that’s after 2 years of hard programming.

However, once more people forget their history lessons. Microsoft was a rich company already when they launched Windows 2.0 – and there wasn’t anything more ridden with bugs than that. Mosaic, the first graphical browser of the WWW, just had a gray background that you could not change. This is how things start in the Internet – they aren’t served as “perfect applications” since Day One. We are the pioneers of this brave new world, and we suffer from that.
The next generation will have it much more easier. Around 2008 or so, SL will have probably a few hundred thousand users. Graphical cards and CPU power will have quadrupled by then, and you’ll be able to have a 10 Mbps connection for a few dozen
dollars per month, so average throughput to SL will be probably 1 Mbps and not 100 Kbps. That means at least ten times more textures, ten times more avatars per sim computer, ten times higher prim limit, and much more realistic landscapes. That will be the time SL will “explode” exponentially. And 4 or 5 years later, we will have 1 Gbps links for a few dollars, supercomputer-class CPUs on our laptops, and VR googles for display.

So the technology is there! Philip and his team could run SL on a supercomputer today and show you the metaverse of tomorrow. But who would be able to afford it? Remember how Internet videoconferencing started, with Philip’s technology back in 1995, using modems to transfer data. It was awful, but look how far we’ve come today, when things like videoconferencing are a “common feature” on chat clients…

By learning our history of the past, and seeing exactly the same arguments over and over again, it’s very easy to counter them very successfully. The Luddites will never leave us. We just need to accept that.

The approach is all wrong – a company trying to use proprietary technology will never succeeed

I have mixed feelings about this argument, since I also believe that nowadays the best projects are lead by companies willing to engage in open platforms (not necessarily open source platforms). The good news is, Philip is aware of it, and from what he said at the last Town Hall meeting, we can expect the “opening up” somewhere next year.

Why so late? Well, my guess is, Philip is trying to follow Netscape’s steps. Start with a “proof of concept”. In the near future, there will be lots of alternatives, and he’ll open up the code to make people use SL as the preferred alternative. So instead of “stamping out the competition”, he will probably encourage people to develop “open source clients” to connect to SL’s main grid, and “open source servers” for people to set up their own grid nodes. How exactly this will be accomplished is still unknown, but it will happen.

The “stable economy”, which is the driving factor behind SL, will always be “in the hand” of LL. But “islands in the net” will be added slowly to SL’s major grid – and probably even grow at a larger pace than SL’s own. But they will be the “badlands” – places where there won’t be Liaisons to help you out, where the L$ won’t be accepted as currency, or your objects won’t rez properly. This will be a first step of development as soon as we can get our hands on the server technology 🙂

I also think that’s the reason why most of the code used for SL is either open source (Linux, Apache, Squid…) or developed by LL itself – with the major exception of Havok. This will enable them to easily “open it up”. Still, there is a lot of work to do before this becomes a reality.

The biggest advantage of having LL behind SL is essentially “driving force”. By presenting the technology as “something cool for a entertaining game”, LL is able to get enough income to pay for their resident staff of programmers and sysadmins, which improve the game continuously. Ok, we all know there should be a much faster turnaround time. But things can only improve!

So, what will defined SL’s success? In my humble opinion, getting a “critical mass” of people believing in Philip’s vision. From what I gathered, people inworld are mostly skeptics. They prophesize LL’s bankrupcy “any time real soon now” and point out that this almost happened several times in the past. So, inworld residents are “players”, but they aren’t believers or visionaries, so they won’t “spread the good news”. Actually, some of them are even detractors – they want to be left alone in peace, and the more people join every day, the worse there will be to the current resident base (ie. “oh no, newbies flying around”).

But critical mass is the key. Both in “believing” and spreading the word, as well as in joining SL, of course.

So do us all a favour, tell 5 friends about SL today 😀

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